Sustainability Myths

The issue that's on everyone's agenda today.

In the past few months, the most frequently requested topic for keynote addresses, workshops, and retreats has been sustainability. Always a favorite topic, the economic decline has placed the topic of sustainability on the front burner for so many groups at the national, state and local level who are seeking collaborative solutions.

My first question is always "What do you mean by sustainability?" Too often the answer is finding replacement dollars for a time-limited grant or funding source that has dried up or is on the brink of drying up. Understanding sustainability on a deeper level can help clarify the vision of the collaborative and help it achieve this end state.

There are a series of myths about sustainability that are best dispelled at the start:

Myth One : Everything we do must be sustained

It is rare to find a project that has evaluated and honed its efforts so that every part of its program is known to be effectively helping the program reach its goal. In most programs, we are attached to all of our staff, all our sub-contracts, our overhead percentages and our programmatic efforts. However when we ask the question, "What efforts, staffing, funding etc. must be maintained at the exact same level to guarantee the same impact?", we may come up with different answers. Of course, the key premise here is that we have some form of evaluative data to help us sort out what has been working and what has not. Once we decide that everything does NOT have to be sustained, we then need a process of evaluating and sifting.

Myth Two: The solution is to find an equal amount of replacement funding.

The exciting part of the sustainability process is exploring ways of sustaining the effort other than or in addition to finding replacement dollars. We can ask "Who else in the community might step in to adopt and institutionalize some of our programs?" We can ask "How can we change community norms, capacity and buy-in so that the community can be the long-term carriers of the solution?" We can wonder about the long-term impact of policy changes as a strategy for sustaining the changes we wish to see in the community.

Myth Three : Sustainability is best thought about in the waning months of your funding.

Clearly we urge all community collaborations to think about sustainability throughout their development. Planning for sustainability is a fascinating process when it is tied to visioning and strategic planning processes. It allows us to imagine how others can not only support our efforts but also be the long-term carriers of the solutions. It may mean thinking of ourselves as catalysts as opposed to program deliverers.

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Sustainability Worksheet

What do you want to sustain?

In our work with communities, we start the process of examining sustainability by asking them to think about what they want to sustain. How would the future look if they achieved sustainability? If it is a violence prevention collaborative, what does their community look like if it is peaceful? If it is an environmental justice coalition what does their community look like if the environmental and justice issues are resolved?

This process requires a careful look at all aspects of the coalition's efforts how does it spend its time? Its money? The chart below is a good starting point for this discussion. The sustainability outcomes listed are divided into two categories: external and internal.

The external outcomes are those we hope to leave in the community. If our goal is to create community change as represented by changes in policies, practices and programs, then these are the first of the long-lasting outcomes we can look to sustain. Changes in community norms and the maintenance of relationships and partnerships formed through the collaborative are other external outcomes to sustain.

Internal outcomes are more closely related to sustaining the specific functions that the collaborative has performed in the community. These roles include being: a monitor of successes, a catalyst for change, a convener and a collaborative problem solver. Even here, it is not necessarily assumed that the collaborative itself must be sustained if there are others in the community who can maintain these critical collaborative functions. We do not ask whether the collaborative itself needs to be maintained until we have asked all the other questions first. Admittedly, this is a tough test for collaboratives, but our experience is that using this instrument allows collaboratives to become much clearer about their present and future role in their community.

Try the Sustainability Worksheet (pdf) and let us know how it goes.

Additional Resources:

  1. Tip Sheets on Sustainability (pdf)
  2. Community Tool Box
  3. Sustainability ToolKit 10 Steps to Maintaining Your Community Improvements published by the Center for Civic Partnerships Sacramento,CA

In the next issue of the Newsletter we will look at how to successfully create sustainability using our four-pronged approach.

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Resources: What's new at the Community Tool Box?

This reliable website gets a new look.

The Community Tool Box has a new look. If your visits to the Community Tool Box (CTB) are among the 4 million hits that this site gets each year then you already know what a valuable resource it is. As one of the collaborators on the development and expansion of the CTB since 1994, I know that many of our frequent users reported that the CTB was hard to navigate. So after extensive study and careful work with our technical team the CTB now has a new look one that we hope and indeed have been told will be easier to navigate.

For those who have not visited the Community Tool Box before:

The Community Tool Box is an internet-based resource that promotes community health and development by connecting people to practical tools for community building.

The CTB has grown to more than 6,000 pages of community building knowledge in more than 275 sections. The reach of the CTB is global with use growing exponentially, with 145,000 user sessions in 2002. About 30% of the user sessions were from outside the United States. The CTB helps you produce a tangible product with benefits to the community organization (e.g., a functional plan of action, a grant application that gets funded) and is enhanced by providing tools, overheads and checklists that can be downloaded and printed to help guide local work.

What is new?

First, the home page has been redesigned to make it much easier to find what you are looking for. The major areas are now titled:

  • Learn a Skill - to find the Table of Contents,
  • Plan the Work - to access the brand new Toolkits for the 16 core competencies,
  • Solve a Problem - to find the Trouble Shooting Guides, and
  • Connect with Others - for links to peers or Ask an Advisor.

Second, the Toolkits are a brand new way to organize the Tool Box material and your thinking. Material is organized around 16 core skills such as: Assess community needs and resources, Develop a strategic or plan, Build leadership, Increase participation and membership, Evaluate the initiative and Write a grant application for funding

Third, the Community Tool Box team recently completed a visioning process and projected the following goals for the next five years:

  1. Expand the role of the CTB as a Global Resource
  2. Increase the interactive use of the CTB so that the CTB is a commonly used site for co-learning, and problem solving among those doing the work around the world (e.g., online forums, Ask an Advisor) and
  3. Develop the capacity and the use of the CTB so that groups and individuals around the world can connect with each other for the purpose of taking effective action together (e.g., global health issues, advocacy for social justice).

Contact us if you would like to be a partner in the Community Tool Box's future.

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Tom Wolff & Associates Offer New Services

Additional resources for your community.

Tom Wolff & Associates announces the creation of newly expanded resources for those seeking collaborative solutions to individual, group, organizational or community issues. We understand that collaborative problem solving is the avenue for creating healthy and just communities; communities where we all want to live and raise our children. These collaborative coalition processes are the key to finding solutions to many of the issues that we face. Tom Wolff & Associates can provide you and your collaborative efforts with the support services that will make the difference in your capacity to create the community or organizational changes that you seek.

With over thirty years of experience designing and supporting collaborations across North America, Tom Wolff & Associates brings extensive expertise to those creating and managing systems of coalitions and collaborative processes. We help both leaders and groups work though the challenges inherent to building and managing large, multi-sector collaborations. Our services include: consultation, design and facilitation of annual retreats, troubleshooting, personalized coaching, customized training, keynote addresses, and developing customized resource materials for your organization.

Let us help your organization and collaborative efforts function at its best by designing a customized package of services for your system of coalitions or individual collaborative. In our work we aspire to bring greater joy and a deeper sense of spirit and purpose to those involved in seeking collaborative solutions.

Call me to discuss how to create collaborative solutions for your community and organization. There is no fee for the initial consultation. For instant access to resources and to learn more about Tom Wolff & Associates, explore our new website.

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